What to Expect Your First Year of OT School & Tips to Succeed

Hey readers! I recently finished my first whole year of OT school…WOW! I can’t believe how fast the time has flown by. It also blows my mind to think that I only have three semesters left of OT classes! This post is intended for students who are about to embark on their OT journey and begin a grad program. If you are a pre-OT student or still in your first year of OT school, this one’s for you! (If you will be attending MGH Institute of Health Professions starting in June, this post will also be really helpful in answering some IHP-specific questions.)

Thinking back to how I felt before starting my OTD program, I can imagine the nerves and jitters that many soon-to-be-OT students are feeling right about now. Some of you may be starting school in June, and some may be starting in the fall. Regardless, you may be preparing to move across the country and embark on a journey to become an OT practitioner. You are dreaming of entering this amazing field, and you may be nervous for the late nights, exams, and transitions that come along with starting grad school. It will be a challenge and you will be faced with lots of changes, but I promise it will be worth it! Here are a few of my tips on what to expect during your first year of grad school and how to deal with all of the life changes that you will face in the coming months.

The Classes

I’m not going to lie…grad school is hard. The classes are tough and there is a lot of work involved, but you have to trust that your undergraduate education prepared you well. You likely had to take pre-requisite classes such as anatomy & physiology, kinesiology, and human development. All of the pre-requisite classes that you take prior to beginning OT school are meant to prepare you for what you will learn once you get there. These pre-requisite classes and all of the skills that you learned in undergrad laid a strong foundation to prepare you for OT school, so have confidence in that!

Tips: Take the time to write out all of your classes in a schedule format. Not all schools are the same, but my school lists classes in a really confusing way. Writing out my schedule in a calendar format really helps me to visualize all of the classes that I am taking and how much time I will spend each day/week on campus.

Another tip is to create separate folders in your computer (or physical folders if you are a pen and paper type of student) for each semester, and then separate documents further into a folder for each individual class. This helps me to stay organized and find files easily on my laptop.

Studying

You will definitely be spending lots of time studying while you are in grad school. I don’t think I have ever studied so much in my life as I did for Clinical Anatomy last summer. Everyone studies differently, so you will need to figure out what works best for you. Furthermore, some students may need to learn how to study again if they have taken a year or more off between undergrad and grad school. I didn’t take any time off, but I can imagine that going from working full-time to going back to school must be challenging. On the other hand, it is also challenging to find the internal motivation to study if you have already been in college for four years!

Tips: Find the right study spot for you. Some people like to study in groups while others prefer studying alone. Check out your campus’s quiet study areas, library, and student meeting areas. As a commuter, I am not on campus unless I have class. However, I have the hardest time studying at home. I found that I was most productive at my town’s public library (and I was even able to check out a few books).

Not only do you need to find the right study space, but you also need to figure out what works best for you. Some study techniques that work for me are flash cards (especially for anatomy), drawing (also for anatomy), and re-writing my notes. Other students may prefer talking through subjects with peers, teaching the material to someone else, etc. Comment below what some of your preferred study methods are!

My last study tip is time blocking. By time blocking, I mean literally blocking off time in your calendar to study. If it’s in my schedule, I am more likely to get it done. This also prevents me from overbooking myself. If I see that I need to study because I have an exam coming up, I am less likely to make plans with friends or pick up extra shifts at work that week. As hard as it can be at times, OT school has to be my biggest priority. I am a very visual and schedule-oriented person, so this really helps me to make time to study (I usually use Google calendars on my iPhone). I even color coordinate my calendar – school, friends, personal, work, exercise, and commuting.

Friendships

As you may be able to tell by now, school will take up the majority of your time. I found that I have to intentionally make time for friends and make plans in advance to get to see them. For me, this took a toll on some friendships and made me realize that good friends will understand what you are going through. Grad school can be hectic and stressful, so any friendships that are adding more stress to your life may need to be reevaluated. For those of you who are moving to another state for OT school, you also may be worried about making new friends. Whether you are living with classmates from your program or living with random roommates, this can be scary!

Tips: Make plans way in advance. If you live near any friends from college or high school, finding time that works for everyone can be tough. What works best for my friends and I is to make plans a couple of weeks in advance so we can all make sure that we have the time to see each other. Also, prioritize your friendships! Taking the time to see people who make you happy and relieve some stress is so important. Give yourself a break from time to time. I try to see my friends each about once a month. This doesn’t seem like much, but between all of our schedules this is what works best for us.

For those who are moving out of state, take any opportunity you can to meet new people and get to know your classmates. I live about an hour away from school, so it is tough for me to get together with my classmates, unfortunately. But for those who live close to school, getting together is a bit easier. I often see social media posts of them exploring Boston and trying out new bars and restaurants together. Do your best to attend these outings, and you are sure to find a few people who you relate to and become friends with. After all, most people in your program are likely to be in the same position as you!

Moving

I didn’t move to attend my grad program, but since so many of you are probably moving out of state for grad school, this section may be helpful. Moving can be scary, especially if it is across the country, somewhere you have never been before, and/or you are nowhere near family or friends. One thing that may provide solace is knowing that most people in your program are probably feeling the same way and in the same position!

Tips: Explore your new city! One of the perks of moving out of state for grad school is having the opportunity to explore a new town or city and make new friends. Scope out a good study spot, the nearest grocery store, and a few places you want to visit.

Bring a few items from home that remind you of where you are from and make you feel more at home in this new place.

Finally, if your friends and/or family have the means to do so, definitely invite them to visit! It can be really fun to show off your new home to people who are important to you.

Commuting

Commuting is one of the worst parts of grad school to be honest. I live about an hour away from school, and with traffic and/or the time it takes to use public transportation it usually takes me 1.5-2 hours to get to school every day. This takes a pretty big toll on my mental health, but financially it is my best option right now. I am really lucky to be able to live at home while I am in grad school, so I try to make the most of it!

Tips: Whenever I take the train, I snag a window seat at a table and get to work. I try to get homework and studying done on the train whenever possible. This allows me to maximize my time and relax once I finally get home.

If I’m not doing homework on the train, sometimes I will use this time to read a book for pleasure. For Christmas, my boyfriend got me a kindle because he noticed that I liked reading on the train but that books weighed down my backpack. A kindle is a great alternative for a few reasons: it is lighter and takes up less space in my backpack, it can hold lots of different books, you can rent library books on it, and it cuts down on the use of paper (although I do love holding a paper book from time to time)! Here are a few books that I have loved lately/are currently reading:

  • Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis
  • Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan
  • A Love Letter Filled Life by Jeremy & Audrey Roloff (currently reading and loving)

Another thing that I love to do on the train is listen to podcasts. I get bored listening to music at times, so podcasts are a great alternative. I love listening to ones that either teach me something new or inspire me to better myself. Here is a list of my favorites:

These podcasts I listen to religiously:

  • OT 4 Lyfe
  • The Sensory Project
  • NPR Up First

These podcasts I pick and choose which episodes I want to listen to:

  • Occupied
  • Spill The OT
  • Pantsuit Politics
  • RISE Podcast with Rachel Hollis
  • RISE Together with Rachel and Dave Hollis
  • The Things She Does
  • SHE Podcast
  • Goal Digger
  • Super Soul Conversations
  • I haven’t listened to them in a while, but I also used to like Optimal Living Daily, Optimal Finance Daily, and Optimal Health Daily

I always love book and podcast recommendations, so if you have any must-reads or must-listens, please comment below!

Getting Involved

Get involved! Grad school is definitely different than undergrad and there is less of a push to get involved in extracurricular activities. However, this is a great way to learn new skills, set yourself apart, and make friends with peers who have similar interests as you! I recently became the president of my school’s Student Occupational Therapy Association, and I am also a member of Best Buddies.

Tip: Find a list of clubs that your school offers or attend a club fair! Discover one or a few that interest you and put your name and email on their sign-up list. Getting involved in clubs in grad school is a great way to build your resume, engage in community service, network with faculty and professionals, and make friends at school!

Myself and the rest of the 2019-2020 SOTA board!

Part-Time Jobs

Having a part-time job while in grad school may be daunting, but I believe it is possible. This is a personal preference for some and a necessity for others. In my experience, having a part-time job is definitely manageable. However, ensure that you have enough time for schoolwork and additional time for yourself (this may be time to spend with friends, a significant other, or just relaxing or having alone time). Only do what you can handle!

Tips: Start off small with the number of hours you work at a part-time job. You can always increase your hours later, and this allows you time to see how many hours of work you can manage each week.

Apply for research assistant and graduate assistant jobs that interest you at your school. If none of these interest you, you can also apply to work in various offices on campus. This may make managing school and work easier since they are both on campus.

There are often PCA and nannying jobs available, and I have found that people love to hire OT student PCAs and nannies. I am a PCA and not only do I have a lot of skills from OT school that help me to be a better PCA, but I also learn new skills from the individual that I work for. Win, win!

Time Management

This is a hard one, guys. If you, like me, commute to school, have multiple part time jobs, are president of one club and a member of another, and have a significant other and friends in the area who you want to see, time management will be a huge factor in determining your success in school and in your personal life. I struggle with this quite often and have found some strategies that work for me to make sure that I have time for everything that I need and want to do and everyone who I want to spend time with.

Tips: Get an agenda! I write literally everything down. First, I write it in my physical written agenda. Then, I input it into my Google calendar. I love the satisfaction of writing down what I need to do (ex. homework) and crossing it off when it’s completed. But, I don’t always want to carry my agenda with my 24/7. With both the agenda and the Google calendar, I am always prepared!

Time blocking. This is the second time that I am mentioning it because it is really that helpful. I block off time to study, do homework, hang out with friends and boyfriend, work, exercise, you name it. (See example week’s schedule above).

Digital sticky notes – this is a new one for me! I recently discovered that I can have sticky notes on my laptop’s desktop and it has been a game changer. I had a sticky note for each class, and each sticky note had the due date for each assignment throughout the semester. When I finished an assignment, I deleted it from the list. This was really helpful to stay on track and not miss due dates. It was also really satisfying to one-by-one delete sticky notes once I finished all of the assignments at the end of the semester!

My beloved agenda!

Stress

I’m not going to pretend that grad school isn’t going to be stressful. The most important thing to know is how you yourself deal with stress, how much you can handle, and the best way that you can de-stress.

Tips: This is different for everyone, but here are a few of my favorite ways to de-stress:

  • Read for pleasure
  • Write – in a journal with prompts or on my blog
  • Diffuse essential oils
  • Face masks
  • Baking – I haven’t done this in a while but I love to bake!
  • Listen to acoustic or calming music (or Taylor Swift)
  • Listen to inspirational or motivational podcasts
  • Netflix – HUGE The Office fan
  • Spend time with people you love
  • Spend time outdoors – I enjoy walking my dogs with my mom and playing with them in our backyard
  • Be by the ocean – I love walking along the water or biking along the pier
  • Exercise – this is my most effective de-stressor. If I am so stressed that I don’t make time to exercise, I only feel worse. Making the time to work out, while at times may feel counterproductive when I think you should be studying, actually makes me feel SO much better.

Self-Care & Occupational Balance

This may be last on the list, but it is so important. This goes hand-in-hand with de-stressing, and a lot of the tips are the same. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of others. And as a student, if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to put your best effort into schoolwork. As future OTs, we talk so much about how engaging in meaningful activities literally makes you healthier and happier. Even though you have a lot on your plate in grad school, you should still “practice what you preach” and engage in some of your own meaningful activities.

Tips: Many of my self-care tips are also my de-stress tips, so see above for those! Here are a few more of my tips to maintain occupational balance:

  • Plan ahead to make time for friends and important people in your life
  • Don’t schedule yourself to the max – leave space for down-time to do some of the activities that help you to de-stress
  • Traveling – this is not really a tip, but it is one of my favorite ways to maintain occupational balance. I love exploring new places, trying new food, taking beautiful pictures, spending time with loved ones, and “turning off” from school and work. If you are able to, take advantage of your school breaks by either going on vacation or having a stay-cation at home! Check out this post about my most recent vacation!
Making time for occupational balance and de-stressing at paint night with my boyfriend’s sister, Caroline!

I hope some of these tips and strategies help you to get through your first year of OT school! It may seem scary now, but trust me when I say that time flies by. I can’t believe that I am 1/3 of the way done! Have confidence because getting into OT school isn’t easy, and there is a reason why you were accepted. Remember to have fun along the way, and good luck!! I know that you will all do great and make wonderful OTs one day.

Thanks for reading!

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